Paid Internships are a Red Herring

The nationwide increase in internships for new college graduates has begun the debate as to whether or not interns need to be paid. This debate, however important in today’s economy, should not shape how internships are offered for high school and community college students.

Internships for students in high schools and the first year of community college are very different than those undertaken by older college students, graduates and job changers. At least, they should be. Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Earn Little in the Brave New Economy, has made the case that all workers, whether they’re teens or not, deserve to be paid for their services.

Perlin asks:

“Are we simply extending down to younger and younger ages the same kind of inequality, the same skewed playing field that unpaid internships have been creating more generally?”

Is he assuming that teens who are interns are there only to do work for their employer or organization?

We believe that internship experiences for high school and community college students offer more that work experience. Internships, when driven by the school, ensure that the intern is in a rich learning environment where she cannot only apply what she knows but learn and practice new skills and competencies which are key to success in a future career and higher education. It’s not the internship but what a student has learned from the experience.

Learning cannot be left to the student alone. The school needs to set standards, define the criteria for success and evaluate learning to help the student gain the most from her experience. And most importantly, the adults, both teachers and the sponsoring employer, need to help the intern reflect on the experience, and translate what she has learned into language useful on résumés and in interviews for the future School designed and sponsored internships can level the playing field ensuring that low income and minority students have the same opportunities for quality internships as all other students. Leaving finding an internship to the student alone means that students who are connected through friends and family or who have had a wide early exposure to different industries and professions will seek out an internship while those who are not connected and who have had only narrow early exposure to different careers will not. Paying interns does not mean that the playing field will be level. All it means is that students who find internships will get paid.

The way to ensure that good quality internships are available to ALL students is for the school to design a program that has internship opportunities in a variety of different organizations including nonprofits, businesses, educational organizations, local municipal government and elected government. The school designs the site specific learning with the sponsoring organization making sure that students are applying their knowledge and learning critical skills needed for success, ensuring that any problems regarding placement and ongoing activities are addressed, ensuring that students have opportunities for reflection and practice and that learning is evaluated. The school is there to make the internship experience one of quality and one in which the student can succeed.